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Lay justices' allowances

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 10:45 am, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in

clause 15, page 7, line 22, at end insert

'and are to be reviewed by the Lord Chancellor at least at five yearly intervals to consider the effect of inflation on these allowances.'.

Again, I can be quite brief. The amendment is intended to probe the Government on lay justices' allowances. In a debate earlier this morning, I referred to the debt that we all owe the lay magistracy for their dedication. Requiring consideration of allowances at least every five years—one could express that as once a Parliament—would be no bad thing. It is important to encourage people to continue to volunteer for the vital role of justice of the peace. At least reviewing their out-of-pocket expenses every five years would assure anybody who became a JP and provide useful assistance. I am sure that the Treasury mandarins have told the Minister not to concede the point under any circumstances, but it is well worth probing.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I have not spoken to any Treasury mandarins in my short time in my current post, although I may well seek to do so at the prompting of the hon. Gentleman. He is seeking to amend the clause, which relates to the allowances regime available for those who are magistrates, which provides a useful opportunity to record the gratitude not only of the Government but of the whole of Parliament for the immensely valuable work undertaken by magistrates. They do not do it for allowances, but deserve compensation for the sacrifices that they make in fulfilling their roles.

The clause is substantially the same as the existing power under the Justices of the Peace Act and will largely allow the Lord Chancellor to pay and determine allowances. They include allowances for the cost of travelling to and from the place where duties are performed, subsistence allowances for any specified period during which they are required to be away from their normal place of residence, and financial compensation for loss of earnings or social security benefits, or for additional expenditure incurred in the performance of duties.

The amendment would require the Lord Chancellor to review allowances every five years. That provision is not needed in the Bill. First, having a specified time span between such reviews introduces a matter of detail into the Bill that is not appropriate. Secondly, the levels of allowances are in any case reviewed annually, so five years would probably be too long an interval. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that the amendment is not needed and will withdraw it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

It is useful to have a record of the fact that the Minister recognises, as all hon. Members do, the importance of the work of lay magistrates. I did not really expect him to accept the amendment, but felt that it was important to have the debate, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the

Bill.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I am grateful to the Minister and I will take his thanks back home to Mrs. Miller, who is a magistrate of some 20 years standing.

The breadth of the magistracy in the area in which I live concerns me because it is supposed to represent the whole of the community. Over recent years, it has become more difficult to recruit suitable candidates, particularly people from manual occupations, because of the problems of release from work. Some of the bigger employers in the north-west used to wear as a badge of pride their habitual release of people from work to carry out such functions. Recruitment has become more difficult as employment units have become smaller. In small and medium companies, someone with a particular occupation might be the only person doing a certain job.

I recognise that there is no easy solution to that problem. Part of the solution is ensuring that lost-earnings compensation is kept up to a sensible level. Over the years, lost-earnings compensation has tended to be a miserly sum not in keeping with modern well-paid jobs. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister carefully to examine how we can maintain the balance of the bench while addressing some of the difficult problems concerning release to undertake duties such as those of the magistracy. I appreciate that the issue of release is covered in employment legislation, which is another Department's responsibility, but it may be sensible for the Minister to acquaint himself with that legislation to try to find a working balance, so that the problem, which is probably more acute in some parts of the country than others, is dealt with.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend raises an extremely interesting issue. I hope that he will pass on my best wishes to Mrs. Miller and thank her for her work as a magistrate in his constituency.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Just outside my hon. Friend's constituency. He asked how we can encourage magistrates from diverse backgrounds to come forward to reflect society as a whole, which we want to see. I understand that the magistracy is relatively representative in comparison with other parts of the judiciary. For example, roughly equal numbers of men and women become magistrates, which is welcome.

I should like to make two points to my hon. Friend. First, the existing earnings-loss compensation already recognises those justices who are self-employed as opposed to those who are not, and the changing nature of industry and employment in society. Secondly, it is time that we had a national strategy for the recruitment of lay magistrates, and I will look to announce such provisions shortly. We must aim to target employers and under-represented groups more thoroughly. We must also examine the allowance structure to see whether it affects people volunteering to be magistrates. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston will recognise that the clause is necessary to continue the good, existing arrangements.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.